Opinion

How the Nazi Pogrom of Kristallnacht Became Just Another Political Meme

The term 'Kristallnacht' has become a political weapon for both left and right. Is this a welcome engagement with the historical record, 80 years on, or a grotesque exploitation of it?

Synagogue of Siegen, Germany, set on fire by the Nazis during Kristallnacht. 9 November 1938
Wikipedia

In London’s Russell Square underground station several weeks ago, a poster was put up in the elevator, advertising a new exhibition called Shattered. Within 48 hours it had been defaced: The words "Free Palestine" scribbled across it (accompanied, curiously, by a heart). 

Shattered is an exhibition by the Wiener Library, of which I am the director, marking the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht (often translated as the Night of Broken Glass], the Pogrom of November 9/10, 1938, when Nazis targeted German and Austrian Jews, synagogues and Jewish businesses.

There is no doubt that for many, the 80th anniversary has a significance and a magnetism that was entirely absent in 1988, when the Library put up an exhibition to mark the 50th anniversary, and plays a part in the defacing of our poster.

Indeed, "Kristallnacht" has found a second life as a popular term in political discourse, used by a political spectrum as diverse as critics of the Trump-Putin press conference in Helsinki to anti-Jeremy Corbyn voices to the alt-right accusing Facebook of a "digital Kristallnacht."

Why has Kristallnacht become a current political trope? Should we welcome this as a reinvigoration of historical memory, or reject it as demeaning the historical record?

For many, Kristallnacht marks the beginning of the Holocaust. Yet a closer look reveals that this isn’t really the case. The Holocaust was Hitler’s "Final Solution" – the decision to murder Europe’s (and perhaps the world’s) Jews.

Kristallnacht, by contrast, was a kind of state-sanctioned riot, a nationwide lashing out at the Jews of Germany and Austria. It was intended to appear "spontaneous" (Nazi spontaneity was always highly organized and regimented). After the event, it was used as the pretext for the accelerated robbery of property owned by Jews, and an increased pressure on Jews to "vanish,", i.e. emigrate.

Rather than beginning something, Kristallnacht marked an ending. The key figure behind it was Josef Goebbels, who thought that the "spontaneous" and "radical" outburst of violence and destruction would deflect Hitler’s irritation over Goebbels’ marital infidelities and sexual scandals.

But the initiative backfired, and Hermann Goering moved into pole position on the so-called Jewish Question, while Heinrich Himmler, in the background, planned his own ultimate take-over. Kristallnacht has been described as one of the many dead-ends on the "twisted road to Auschwitz" (the title of an influential account of the Holocaust from the 1970s).

The furnishings and ritual objects from the synagogue in the German town of Mosbach are piled up and burnt in the town square during Kristallnacht. 10 November 1938
Heritage Images/Getty Images

Yet this doesn’t quite capture it either. Kristallnacht is sui generis, and oddly mysterious at its core. This is reflected in the lack of clarity about naming the event.

"Kristallnacht" is the term the Nazis invented, and its use is widely frowned upon because it adopts and legitimates Nazi terminology. The other widely-used term is "November Pogrom," but this is also problematic, since pogroms are associated chiefly with Russia and eastern Europe and arose out of radically different political realities ("traditional" pogroms were never nationwide, let alone international).

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One of the shattering realities of Kristallnacht was the role of neighbors and acquaintances as protagonists of the violence. This has not been widely appreciated, with the focus landing mainly on the role of officials. But the role of neighbors must have been especially bitter to their victims.

In the small town of Hilden in Germany, a woman whose stepfather had been stabbed to death was summoned by the police and asked if she knew who was responsible. She replied:

"For the record, I do not know whether it was an SS or an SA man or a civilian. To answer you, personally: it was my neighbor, the hairdresser."

So why has Kristallnacht acquired such an attraction to so many people who apply the word to unrelated events and phenomena, such as appropriating the term to describe a political opponent's real intentions as a "never-ending Kristallnacht"? 

In the UK, the Kristallnacht anniversary is largely disregarded outside the Jewish communities, and - ironically - those circles committed to the hatred of Israel. These latter, today, are overwhelmingly on the outer fringes of left-wing politics, which the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn has nurtured and embraced to such dramatic effect. Social media responses to the defaced poster (whose "commentary" co-opted and related the Holocaust to the situation of Palestinians) chiefly blamed it on "Corbynistas."

Far right expropriation of the November Pogrom is frequently linked to Holocaust denial and the attempt to paint Israel and Israelis as the "real" or "new" Nazis. Long seen as marginal, forces of this kind are gradually moving into the mainstream, and consequentially their rhetoric is becoming more widespread and dangerous - as was seen in Pittsburgh.

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But in modern politics, things are rarely straightforward. In the case of Hungary, state-sponsored Holocaust denial (or at least Holocaust relativization) and anti-Semitism (such as grotesque posters of financier George Soros) go hand in hand with successful business and political ties with Israel. (Shared right-wing nationalism trumping, as it were, other considerations.)

For increasingly beleaguered Jewish communities in the U.S., Israel and around the world, the anniversary of Kristallnacht offers an opportunity to recall and highlight that Jews were the primary target of Nazi violence and genocide. The attention this year’s Kristallnacht anniversary is attracting may be an indication of the worry – even the despair - that many Jews feel about the way the world is going.

It is grotesque, but increasingly one needs to remind people that Jews were the victims, not the cause, of the Holocaust. It is just as grotesque that people need reminding that the Pogrom specifically targeted Jews, and it seems poor taste to co-opt that specific victimization for any number of other causes. 

Members of the National Socialist Movement hold a swastika burning after a rally in Draketown, Georgia, on April 21, 2018.
SPENCER PLATT/AFP

And beyond the political spectrum and the Jewish world, there is the immense, disinhibited and often raving world of the internet and social media, where anything – absolutely anything – goes.

For many, there seems a kind of glamor surrounding Nazi jargon and Nazis in general – those sharp uniforms, those great slogans, that raw power – that makes naïve people want to rub up against it, usually unencumbered by historical understanding or insight.

Much online commentary is fuelled by the morbid fascination of dark tourism - visiting sites of catastrophe and mass murder as a leisure activity; that "glamor" bolsters the use of attenuated swastikas by the far right, and the flourishing trade in Nazi memorabilia - to the extent that war graves in eastern Europe are being looted to supply that market.

That the Kristallnacht anniversary engages public attention is inevitably good – because it is right to recall the injustices and crimes of the past. But it is also damaging – because reading across from past events to today’s problems in the absence of historical knowledge and context is senseless, misleading and dangerous.

You cannot learn from history if you ignore history, or wilfully rewrite it.

Ben Barkow is Director of the Wiener Library in London, where he has worked for over 30 years. He is the author of "Alfred Wiener and the Making of the Holocaust Library" (1997), co-editor of "Als obs ein Leben wär: Tatsachenbericht Theresienstadt 1942-1944" (2005), and co-editor of "Novemberpogrom 1938: Die Augenzeugenberichte der Wiener Library, London" (2008)

This op-ed was first published on November 8, 2018